This story is part of our “Taking Stock,” series, which shares insights from past research projects supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program. We reflect on which approaches these projects used to make research relevant and useful to decision-makers—and ask how the research has informed marine policy and management. To see the full series, visit the Cross Currents homepage.
Change is constant in the Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Cape Cod to Canada’s Bay of Fundy. Its cod fishery, once the “world’s greatest,” has famously plummeted, and has not rebounded despite drastic cuts in fishing quotas. Meanwhile, its waters have spiked a fever, warming faster than almost anywhere else in the ocean.
That puts the gulf in the vanguard of regions confronting a new challenge: restoring fisheries just as climate change starts to intensify.
This is the story of one of the first studies to call widespread attention to this challenge in New England. The study drew significant public attention but, at the time, was not helpful in informing management, and in fact, drew negative reactions from some researchers and managers working in the region. We wanted to understand why, because a key goal of the Lenfest Ocean Program is to provide useful information for marine policy and management.
We reflect on two important aspects of developing research useful for informing marine policy and management. The first is a lesson. Regular communication with stakeholders, especially when significant changes to the focus of the research occur, is key for increasing the chances that scientific research project is relevant, useful and timely for management decisions. Second, we consider the other potential impacts this research may have supported.
A Research Project Changes Direction
In the beginning, this project was not focused on climate change. When they began work in 2011, the project researchers were interested in big, old, fat, fertile, female fish—also known as BOFFFFs—and whether reducing their catch could increase the resilience of a population.
The research team—led by Dr. Andrew Pershing of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program—produced a paper on the effect of large fish on resilience. But along the way, a striking climate trend came into focus: in the decade ending in 2013, surface temperature in the gulf increased by 2.3°C (4.1°F), one of the largest temperature swings ever experienced by a large marine ecosystem.
Because Atlantic cod is a cold-water species, Dr. Pershing and his colleagues wondered whether this heat wave could help explain the collapse of the cod population. To answer this question, they analyzed the mathematical model that managers rely on to understand the population, known as the stock assessment model. The researchers looked at the estimates the model had produced for cod reproductive rate and mortality and found that both sets of estimates were correlated with temperature—a potential signal that the rapid warming occurring in the Gulf of Maine was preventing cod recovery.
In a 2015 paper published in Science (and summarized here), they argued that because the most recent stock assessment did not consider temperature, it underestimated the rate of cod mortality. This resulted in an overly optimistic estimate of the number of available fish, prompting managers to set fishing quotas that were too high. The research team suggested a method for using temperature in setting quotas that might help managers rebuild this stock, even in a warmer climate.
Research Impact: Beyond Publication Counts
It is tempting to say that the paper had an impact simply because it was published in Science, which has one of the highest “impact factors” of any journal. Impact factors measure how often a journal’s articles are cited by other scientific articles.
But that is a narrow definition. One possible indicator of broader influence is public reaction, which was notable. The Science paper received a high level of news media attention. Moreover, it sparked numerous conversations about climate change in the fisheries community. This happened not just for cod but for several other species, suggesting the study may have a lasting impact.
On the other hand, the study has not yet been formally considered in the management of the cod fishery, according to people involved in the process. One plausible reason is simple: fishing is a contentious topic in New England. It is possible that no paper suggesting a significant change would have been embraced in the short term.
But another explanation is that the management community was unprepared for the criticisms of the stock assessment in the paper and the accompanying media splash. The result was a negative reaction: two groups of researchers close to the management process published formal rejoinders in Science (to which Dr. Pershing’s team responded).
Strengthening/Reaffirming Commitment to Sustained Stakeholder Engagement
The reason for this reaction may be that Lenfest Ocean Program staff did not adequately engage with decision-makers throughout the project, especially when the research focus changed course to address a potentially controversial topic. Such engagement is critical to laying the groundwork for productive dialogue between researchers, decision-makers, and stakeholders. As a result, we missed an opportunity to prepare decision-makers for the findings and potentially foster a more constructive exchange with the researchers.
This experience has strengthened our commitment to making regular contact with key decision-makers, and stakeholders as early as possible, so we can anticipate and respond quickly if a project changes course. Finally, regardless of whether a project changes course, our goal is to ensure that decision-makers are informed about the research and its motivation, and that the grantees can engage with them at any time to help make the project more relevant and useful.
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